Bruce Fein's New York Times Letter to the Editor

Bruce Fein, a former general counsel for the FCC under President Reagan, published a letter to the editor in today’s New York Times. He claims that Nicholas D. Kristof’s recent column “wrongly chastises New York for neglecting to emulate the citywide wireless networks in rural Oregon” due to far greater cost of deploying Wi-Fi in populated urban areas.

While Mr. Fein is correct in stating that Wi-Fi in New York would be more costly than in, say, Philadelphia (as I have written previously in this blog 1, 2), his claim that it would cost $1 billion is way off the mark. Yes, New York City recently put out an RFP for a $1 billion wireless network for police, fire, and emergency rescue use. This network is intended to be private and secure, and won’t likely use Wi-Fi (it certainly won’t use Wi-Fi in the normal 802.11a/b/g bands).

From where is Mr. Fein getting his $1 billion figure? According to JupiterResearch, the cost of building and maintaining a municipal wireless network is $150,000 per square mile over five years. Sascha Meinrath of CUWiN claims that a network with a density of 142 nodes per square mile would cost about $49,700. If we take these as a low and a high estimate, we wind up with a total cost for NYC between $15 million and $50 million. Even if we triple the JupiterResearch cost estimates, we don’t come even close to Mr. Fein’s number.

Furthermore, Mr. Fein’s claim that such a network would be entirely Wi-Fi is mis-informed. Such a network should use whatever wireless and wired technologies are appropriate. Wi-Fi happens to be the best solution for getting internet access over the “last 100 yards”. As for competition, New York could be the city that encourages the most R&D in wireless, if only the City created the right environment, perhaps by opening up more lightpole franchises at an affordable rate.

All of this doesn’t address the most important issue: only about 35% of New Yorkers have broadband, and only 10% of low-income families in New York City have broadband. And this is the most connected city in the country! We should be demanding that the Mayor and everyone else in our City Government address this situation! Wi-Fi, WiMax, Wi-whatever—wireline or wireless—it doesn’t matter. In fact, any viable solution will make use of all of these technologies, as well as some others that aren’t even released yet.

We shouldn’t look at this problem as being so large and costly that we can’t address it. We can start small. NYCwireless and its partners have brought free Wi-Fi to many City parks and other public spaces. And we continue to bring public Wi-Fi to low income buildings and other neighborhoods. Working together, we (and every single New Yorker) can make a difference.